IT'S NOT UNUSUAL for an athlete's image to shift in retirement—George Foreman becomes a countertop grill shill, AFL star Jack Kemp morphs into a GOP stalwart, O.J. Simpson dissolves into, well, O.J. Yet what has happened to a certain image of Michael Jordan is an oddity peculiar to our time. On social media it's possible to find Jordan's face atop a prone body in a black sports bra after a Holly Holm knockout. There it is again, rising as the Home Run Apple beyond the centerfield wall as the Mets lose the World Series. There it is once more, being held in place for Vikings kicker Blair Walsh to hook wide left in the closing moments of a playoff game. In each instance Jordan wears the same expression: lips slightly pursed, eyes glossed and red, puffed cheeks soaked by streams of tears.
Thanks to Photoshop and the momentum of memedom, MJ has morphed from a 1990s vision of dominance to 2016's answer to Vinko Bogataj careering off a ski jump to open ABC's Wide World of Sports. Nary a significant sporting event has passed in recent months without the so-called Crying Jordan face being digitally affixed to its losing parties and retweeted into oblivion. If Jordan's name already risked being known to younger cohorts primarily as a brand of sneakers, to screen-obsessed youths his mewling mug has become synonymous with snarky cyberschadenfreude. "I think that's kind of the face of how people remember MJ for a generation," 23-year-old Hornets big man (and Jordan employee) Frank Kaminsky told the Sporting News. "I remember him playing, but for those who didn't grow up in that era, it's [the Crying Jordan face]."
Never mind that the face is not what it appears to be. The photo, snapped by Pulitzer-winning AP photographer Stephan Savoia, depicts Jordan weeping not in despair but gratitude, at his 2009 Hall of Fame induction (and in a rare break from his speech's acerbic grievance airing). Yet like so much on the Internet, the image's truth matters less than the feelings it evokes. In 2012 a user uploaded the photo to the website Memecrunch tagged with the caption, "Why did I buy the Bobcats?" By late 2014 a cutout of Jordan's face was a popular emoji on urban lifestyle message boards like Boxden and The Coli. As users began manipulating the face onto other images, the meme bled into social media at large, gaining steam throughout 2015 on its way to ubiquity. By February, Stephen Curry, the Arizona Cardinals and Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo had all Crying Jordan'd themselves on Twitter in zeitgeisty gestures of self-deprecation. "It's persevered long enough to become a part of online vernacular," says Brad Kim, editor of the website Know Your Meme.
Part of that perseverance stems from Crying Jordan being what Kim calls an "exploitable," or usable in countless iterations, making it a perfect partner for the sports calendar's steady flow of losers and goats. While his readers' interest in most memes cycles through a predictably short lifespan, usually no more than a month, Kim says Crying Jordan is "basically like a series of inclines. It steadily reaches a new peak."
Which raises the question, Why this photo? "It's the ultimate alpha [male] in a vulnerable position," says Timothy Burke, a Deadspin editor and former professor of critical media theory at Florida State College. Accompanying its easily interpreted emotional meaning is a streak of irreverence, as young-skewing keyboard comics make a mockery of a previous generation's hero. In doing so, says Burke, "it boosts their own experience of having seen great players who are not Michael Jordan."
His Airness—who through a rep has conferred his blessing for the meme's noncommercial use—jumped into the crosshairs last month when he attended college basketball's national championship in support of North Carolina, his alma mater. Twitter teemed with anticipation, some of it self-mocking, of the inevitable competition to memeify Michael best. The consensus winner, posted by Burke, was a three-panel strip of Jordan glancing at his phone to view a crude Crying Jordan tweeted by SB Nation, then transforming into Crying Jordan himself. The meme had gone through the looking glass.
By then the backlash was already underway. The Washington Post and USA Today called for its retirement; ESPN's Rachel Nichols held a ceremony to do so on her NBA show, The Jump. And yet Crying Jordan, with a stubbornness befitting its namesake, has refused to bow out, counting Jordan Spieth and draft tragedy Laremy Tunsil among its most recent victims. On the night of the Tar Heels' title-game loss, a free Crying Jordan Meme Generator was downloaded from the app store nearly 3,000 times. Its 29-year-old creator, David Okun, says it has averaged nearly 500 daily downloads since.
No doubt its users will find plenty of fodder in the coming months. Only the clairvoyant may know the winners, but it's a safe bet the losers will look familiar.
Cost of ad space sold on his right shoulder by U.S. 800-meter runner Nick Symmonds. The nine-inch, temporary tattoo was bought by John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile. Symmonds, 32, will have to cover it if he makes the Olympic team.
Consecutive Eastern Conference playoff series won by LeBron James. On Sunday his Cavs swept the Hawks to reach the conference finals. James, who played for the Heat from 2010--11 to '13--14, last lost before the Finals in 2010, with Cleveland.
Age of Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon, who became the oldest player to hit his first career home run when he went deep last Saturday in New York's 6--3 win over the Padres in San Diego.
Faces in the Crowd
The Case for
STEPHAN SAVOIA/AP (JORDAN)
JEROD HARRIS/GETTY IMAGES FOR ROCK 'N' ROLL MARATHON SERIES (SYMMONDS)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (JAMES)
DENIS POROY/GETTY IMAGES (COLON)